Author: jenn (email@example.com)
Spoilers: second season in general, none specific
Codes: McKay, McKay/Sheppard
Summary: It's the fifth time.
Author Notes: CJ, who got me to admit what I was trying to do and who was doing it while doing a fantastic beta job. Madelyn and Celli and Amireal for prereading and general encouragement.
He isn't sleeping anyway.
The perimeter security system fails half-way through the night, the lights set up to illuminate the ceremonial winter dance flickering off unexpectedly. They report it's not a problem, torches have been lit, but Zelenka has a kit packed and Rodney's firing up the puddlejumper before the Marine can finish the sentence.
It's a matter of security, Rodney says, not looking at Radek, and Radek nods, staring straight out the front of the puddlejumper, neither remarking on the silence of their lab or the slow lengthening of the shadows between them.
Most of Atlantis is on the mainland tonight, celebrating the Athosian Midwinter Night, an excuse to get completely and utterly wasted in the name of cultural sensitivity. Rodney would *so not approve* except he's really beginning to feel like they should be closer with their Athosian neighbors, and he ran through the last of the leftover Christmas candy yesterday.
The mainland camp is fragrant with winter wood and the scent of the sand and sea. Night-cool, the camp too close to subtropical to ever be cold. The sounds of Athosians and Atlanteans alike, desperately dancing down the longest night of the year, drift on the breeze. Rodney catches Zelenka's wistful glance at the circle of firelight in the near distance, turning away before he's seen.
Rodney gets one look at the control panel and sends Zelenka off to check the generators while he does some fast and dirty soldering with a penlight between his teeth, fingering the neatly split edge of a power cable and carefully loosened chips, trying to find it more irritating than it actually is. Flipping a switch, the dancers are bathed in fragile silver light, and Rodney packs his kit and abandons it beneath the panel. He drifts toward the sounds of people, trying to look annoyed and failing badly when he's impulsively hugged by a slightly-less-than-sober Elizabeth bearing fermented fruit cider and a plate of tiny cheese-like things with the consistency of pork rinds.
Rodney really likes those.
"I'm glad you came," she says with another hard squeeze, glowing with cider and good will, pretty and open in wine red before moving on to Zelenka with another bright smile and cup of cider.
Rodney glances at the dancers. The ground had been stamped down weeks ago, kept clear of brush and scrub in the time between, a ceremony involving Athosian beer and some sort of roasted nuts and fruits passed between them. Rodney hadn't cared for the fruit, citrus-taste with no actual reaction, but he'd eaten the nuts while building the framework for the lights and sound, watched from the catwalk while Elizabeth and Sheppard stomped with the Athosians in wide circles, the drum setting their rhythm as they laughed themselves sick.
He catches glimpses: Cadman and Beckett swaying to ceremonial Athosian music and utterly failing to keep in any kind of rhythm; Zelenka carefully pacing Elizabeth from the edge of the dance floor while Halling teaches her the intricate steps of something that's a cross between a waltz and line dancing. Parrish and Lorne are playing a game involving wooden discs with two of the Athosian huntsmen in the corner, a rough clay pitcher of cider set between them. Other faces, familiar as his own, seen in glimpses by the fire, talking too fast and laughing too loudly.
Finding a comfortable spot, Rodney drops in the edge of a blanket and watches Teyla and one of the younger Athosian hunters circle each other, eyes locked and barely touching, fingertips brushing with every rotation, slow and thoughtful and stalking. Firelight gleams off the red-gold highlights in her hair, bronze jewelry on neck and ears and bare upper arms, the glint of silver around one wrist, the rich green of her dress making her skin glow, and he thinks, a little wistfully, that he's never seen anyone more beautiful.
"She dances well," Halling murmurs. "But then, she always has." A thoughtful look is aimed in Rodney's general direction. "You do not often come anymore."
Rodney starts, turning to see Halling lower himself to the ground with a cup of cider, and curious, he checks the crowd and sees Zelenka, hand careful and chaste on Elizabeth's back as she teaches him how to move. She laughs, head tilted back to reveal the long line of her throat, and Rodney recognizes the necklace, Atlantean silver set with the glittering stones they'd found on MXC-355, better than industrial diamonds in the lab, neat laboratory-quality cuts and polished to a rich plum.
He'd wondered what had happened to the ones claimed lost last month.
"Hmm," he says, noncommittal, scanning the groups for more familiar faces and trying to think of all the things they could be working on tonight instead of drunken dancing with the natives. Halling's obviously expecting more from him than that, though, so Rodney swallows another cheese thing and tries to look interested.
"I came for the Spring Festival," he says, trying not to twitch. There was food and flowers and wedding, and oh God, barely clad girls coming of age, Rodney hiding in John's tent from flower-throwing maidens while they both laughed themselves sick at the thought of being considered acceptable marriage material for girls young enough to be their daughters. Every year, they drink Athosian ale and bet how long they can hide before Teyla rescues them with a wry twist of lips and takes them home while they solemnly promise they'll never marry any woman but her.
Every year, Elizabeth, John, and Rodney stand with more Atlanteans for a traditional Athosian wedding under bright spring sunlight, the explorers of Atlantis setting down another root on this world, another small way they've become something more than guests in this strange, difficult galaxy.
Rodney stretches his back, sipping Athosian sweet cider, legs crossed, body answering the slow rhythm of the music as Teyla turns away from her partner in perfect, formal rejection, another taking his place.
"She always dances for midwinter," Halling says softly, and Rodney drags his gaze back to Halling, surprised to see the thickening silver above his ears, streaks that speak of an age few men can claim among the Athosians, wisdom and strength and other things that not-quite-primitive cultures revere so deeply. Rodney remembers Teyla in spring, shadowing the edges of the square, hung with flowers and vines, rich with the scents of spring, and never walked the floor to dance with the other unmarried women and choose a mate. She always dances in winter, though, slow or fast, burning energy with fierce abandon. She, like the Atlanteans, has become something more, and like them, gave up something to claim it.
Rodney's an astrophysicist who knows the meaning of the four Athosian festivals, can speak the Athosian Old Tongue for ceremonies descended from the time the Ancients rode the skies of Pegasus, has stood for five of his department to marry into the strange-familiar cultures of their trading partners. He's changed and broken and fixed more laws of physics than any other scientist in the history of the SGC and knows enough Ancient to give Daniel Jackson a run for his money, at least when it comes to technology.
He's a scientist with gun calluses and old scars, the marks of war and confinement and torture tracing his body with his history. He's been a savior and a terrorist, spoken of on a hundred worlds with awe and hate and worship, knows how to build a warhead and how to save a world, and he knows that all of these things don't begin to touch what he's become.
He also knows what midwinter means, definitions that the physicist would never have cared to learn.
He's come four times in all their time here, slept in a strange bed, curled around an unfamiliar body smelling of woodsmoke and sex. Spring is daylight and beginnings, hope and a lifetime of promises to make and to keep, binding two people into something more than they'd been before. Midwinter is the dark of the moon, a tradition carried from northern Athos where the nights were longer and colder, a delirious celebration of survival and life lived fast without regret. Four times, he's come and chosen, been chosen, and then let go of Rodney McKay. Four times he's sloughed off responsibility like an unwanted skin for the space of a single night, breathing the scent of women and men whose faces he can barely see and never remembers, speaking only with their bodies, we survived, we lived, we're *here*, *now*, desperate and rough and *needed*.
When he looks up, Halling gives him a curious smile and nod before slipping away, and Rodney looks at the space he occupied, empty but for the silver bracelet that will decide if he goes to bed alone tonight.
Teyla spins backward, turning her back on another, and Rodney thinks how much less stressful ritual casual sex is here, where the rules are formalized into dance, where the question can be asked and answered with a turn of a back. The silver bracelet glitters on her wrist when she finds another partner, and Rodney thinks that Teyla won't go to bed alone.
With an ache that he barely acknowledges, he wonders where Sheppard and Ronon are tonight.
He plays Wraith and Horn with Lorne and Parrish, badly, drinks cider with Halling and Elizabeth; checks the control to make sure no circuits have been mysteriously cut in his absence but always finds them whole. He loses his jacket and dances with Miko and Elizabeth and Katie, meaningless and without intent. He watches the stars glittering like diamonds on a velvet black sky, stretched out on a blanket spread a small distance from the fire, tracing out the constellations, their Ancient names familiar on his tongue. He knows the legends of every one from long nights translating the database with Sheppard a warm presence inches from his shoulder, adding the stories they've learned from a hundred cultures, heard over campfires and negotiation tables, in formal receptions and alien beds.
When he comes back to the camp, there's more food. Rodney gets a plate, finding Simpson and Zelenka and Elizabeth working through puff cake and pickled berries, lips and fingers stained red. When Elizabeth gets up to leave, empty plate in one lax hand, Rodney sees the silver glint on one narrow wrist, and that's new, because he's done this four times, but Elizabeth never has.
Another tiny root, a way that this place has claimed them, as much as they've learned to claim it.
Cadman and Beckett are long gone, the clearing dense with new bodies: Teyla, Halling, a barely recognizable Lorne in jeans and t-shirt with an unfamiliar archeologist, moving through the intricate dance of asking. Old friends, subordinates, team members and acquaintances, losing themselves and all they carry for this one night.
He thinks to check the control panel again, but then again, maybe there's no point.
He only looks away a second, long enough to fill his glass, and when he looks back, Sheppard's standing at the edge of the floor.
BDUs and faded t-shirt, gun holster absent, watch stripped away for a glint of pure Atlantean silver. His hair's still wet, so he might have gone out with the hunting parties, glossy-dark around his winter-pale face, boots forgotten wherever he changed his clothes. Sheppard's anything but drunk, eyes dark and wary, an eternal second he doesn't move and then he does, stepping onto hard packed earth, narrow bare feet and careful steps, moving between offers with a turn of his back; he knows this dance, he's done it twice but not in longer than Rodney can remember. Sheppard's their memory.
Sheppard never forgets, never lets himself be that free, never shucks duty with his uniform like an uncomfortable skin, never opens himself like this, hasn't tried in so long that Rodney can't remember the last time he saw Sheppard skinned bare like this. Sliding between bodies with fluid ease, he searches the floor, mouth tight, and then Teyla turns her rejection and she and John are inches apart.
Inches and bare space that lengthens, paused uncertainty for four long beats, then locked eyes as they circle each other, then a brush of fingertips that signals how this starts.
Twice, Sheppard has come here; twice, needing what this provided, the place he could forget who he was, what he'd done in the name of survival. Twice, with the people who understand the ghosts he carries, the voices only he can hear, understand duty and fear and helpless rage with a target always just out of their reach. They understand this, too, the military commander of Atlantis becoming John again, if only for a night, celebrating the lives saved, the worlds kept free, the wonder that they've come this far at all.
They're flawless together, and Rodney finishes the cider, feeling lightheaded and dizzy, silver warming in one clenched fist. They brush, part, circle again with wary uncertainty, stunningly hot and unnaturally beautiful, falling into place with each other like none of Teyla's partners did tonight, rhythm created between them that has nothing to do with the low beat of the music.
When John's fingers brush her cheek on the next pass, Rodney finds his feet, not sure what he's doing, but tonight is about that, choosing or being chosen, cut wires and misplaced chips, and the next time John circles away, Rodney reaches out and brushes John's fingertips with his.
From the corner of his eye, he sees Teyla quicksilver glance, shot with surprise, but he's watching John, green eyes shadowed, violet crescents like bruises beneath. John stumbles off rhythm and Rodney catches him, hand on John's wrist, water-cooled skin and body warm metal, the smell of herbal soap as dizzying as the cider. Beneath his thumb, he can feel the hard beat of John's pulse.
He steps back, the heat of the bodies around them making him dizzy, John still so close and paused between them, Teyla on one side and Rodney on the other. Over John's shoulder, he can see her acknowledging nod, but John's already turned from her and begun to circle with a brush of fingers against his.
Rodney's done this four times, four strangers, circling the floor and accepting a single night of anonymity, with the past forgotten and the future erased, living here, *now*, and John's done this twice, but never with strangers and never able to forget.
Another circle, another brush, coming close enough to see the way John's shirt clings to damp skin, the shadow of stubble on his jaw, the way he watches, quiet and intense and focused, like the entirety of their world rests on every brief touch.
Licking his lips, Rodney fights the urge to talk, fuck this all to hell and take them back to themselves, where they'd never do this, but John shakes his head, coming close enough that a deep breath would bring them into sharp contact, then retreating back, a touch of fingertips on his wrist, hot and bright against his skin.
They can do this forever, maybe, falling under the spell of slow drums and haunting pipes, ritual touch and retreat, the hypnotic sway of other bodies around them. He catches a swirl of red from the corner of his eye, Elizabeth, flushed and reckless, with Radek's fingers on the line of her jaw on the next circle, more intimate than a kiss. When John comes closer this time, Rodney reaches for skin, the old, fading scar on his neck, too-smooth, almost slick beneath his touch.
John shivers, lingering a beat too long, and when he moves away, he's flushed.
It makes it easier, somehow, to follow John in a three foot space of floor, circling closer with every careful touch. A brush of fingers against Rodney's jaw, achingly soft, palm against his back for a second that lasts forever, a press of thigh against thigh like quicksilver, breath caught in his throat, aroused and amazed and a little awed as John slips out from under the weight of memory, more with every touch. Close and still the distance of a fingertip away until John stops, hand cupping Rodney's jaw and leaning forward, a single word breathed against his lips. "You."
There's little light, but they don't need it, stumbling blind into a tent on the edge of the camp. John pulls him to the blanket, shirt discarded, kneeling to map Rodney's lower back with callused fingers, mouth against his stomach, wet and soft and hard, the press of teeth a sharp reminder of who Rodney's taking to bed this night.
This is how it starts, Rodney thinks, cupping the back of John's head, threading his fingers through damp, clinging hair, closing his eyes at the feel of John's mouth, the hands on the waist of his pants, teeth pulling buttons free one by one so they pool at Rodney's feet. Kicking them off with his shoes, he pushes John back, tumbling onto rough wool and onto smooth skin, needing touch so badly he can barely think, wrapping himself in John's body, hard muscle and smooth skin and silky hair, trace John's mouth with a finger, staring into painfully vulnerable eyes before a kiss that steals his breath.
It's John, and he can't miss a minute of this, first-time bright, familiar and a stranger all at once.
Midwinter is forgetting, but it's remembering too, and Rodney can remember the thousand times John could have died with his fingertips; a stopped heart, a broken spine, concussions and spear tips that probed too deeply, scars from knives and bullets and sticks. The invisible marks of defeat and victory, compromise and loss, and the all the things they've given up. Holding John down to trace them with his tongue, taste the difference in texture, feel John shiver and twist, soft panted breath and hands on his shoulders, his back, skin-starved and restless and eager.
He wants this, *wants* John, layers peeled away to reveal the man he first met, cocky and sure and as bright as Atlantis itself. He tastes John's smile, breathing in the sharp scents of woodsmoke and Athosian soap and male, kiss him slowly, taking John's taste and replacing it with his own.
He can feel John shift beneath him, unbuttoning his pants, and Rodney sits up, pushing John's hands away to do it himself, revealing the bare skin by inches, follow the line of hair with his tongue, slow licks that make John whisper *please*, and *yes*, and *there*.
"Rodney," he whispers, and Rodney wonders if he could get off just on this, John's skin and broken voice, the restless hands on Rodney shoulders, the hollows of John's hips and the slow, sinuous movements of his body. Pushing the pants down and away, tossed wherever their other clothes have vanished in the dark, he crawls up John's body, shivering at the drag of skin on skin, turns John's head with careful fingers for another kiss.
Pulls John's thigh up, change the angle just enough to line them up, sweat breaking out at the first slow slide, not slick enough, rough and perfect. John never stops touching, skin-starved, like he's making up for years of isolation all at once, smoothing down Rodney's back and ass, cupping his hips, resting warm on the back of his neck.
"Yes," John murmurs, moving against Rodney's, twisting to bite a path along Rodney's collar, murmur the things he wants to do, wants *them* to do, sucking new marks into Rodney's skin, the kind he'll wear even after the bruises fade. John's fingertips dig into his hips, bellies slickened with precome and sweat. The tent smells like raw wool and smoke, like John and sex, and Rodney feels it start at the base of his spine, sparks dancing in front of his eyes. Hooking an arm around John's neck, he licks open his mouth, reaching between them to wrap his fingers around their cocks and pull, once, twice, and John convulses under him.
When he comes, he thinks he stops breathing, staring down into John's wide open eyes, as dark and as endless as the universe itself, filled with stars.
The second time, John stretches out for him, slow and languorous, sweat-slicked and silvery under the faint light of outside, arms above his head, fingers entwined in Rodney's, bracelets clicking softly at every shift of their bodies, fucking warm and slow on rough Athosian wool. John whispers, "Slow, make it last," and Rodney wonders if he can survive this, John's honey-drenched, sex-rough voice, the curve of his mouth when he smiles, the flexible, fluid arch of his body with every lazy thrust.
He keeps his mouth on John's when he comes, molten heat that floods out reason, leaving raw emotion burning too close to the surface, surging to the tip of his tongue, because he's afraid of what he might say.
It's grey and dark outside when Rodney wakes, sticky and sweaty and exhausted in ways he hasn't been in years, aware of the steady sound of early morning drizzle outside, the rough weave of the blankets, and the warm breath against his throat.
His arm's been asleep for hours, and he absently stretches his fingers to feel sharp needles of sensation before curving it over John's shoulders, looking down at the silver bracelet on the hand resting on his chest, the rules of a Midwinter fuck, the boundaries of John Sheppard's life, all wrapped up in a gleaming band.
Four times, awakened by the morning sun peering through the flap of a tent, he's pulled himself free of a strange body, sliding into his skin again to return to Atlantis and the life they live there, bracelet discarded on the bed. Like his midwinter lovers, he doesn't know what happened to them then.
This time, he pushes two careful fingers between skin and metal, flicking the hidden clasp and watching it fall away, stretching to remove his own. Weighing them in one palm, he thinks about the memory they represent, the night you forget, before he tosses them through the opening of the tent, into the drizzle outside.
John shifts, thigh pressing against Rodney's, and Rodney watches the sleep-softened face, the gentle curve of his mouth, body boneless and warm and soft in a way that John Sheppard never is. "Morning?" John murmurs, starting to lift his head.
Gently, Rodney eases him back down, fingers lost in dark hair edged with the first hint of grey, wrapping his other hand around John's bare wrist and closing his eyes against the pale winter light of dawn. "Not yet."